descending off Huron — dream riding
I didn’t think it was going to happen. If you’d asked me a week ago whether I’d be riding down Huron Peak, after having summitted, I would have put the likelihood somewhere close to zero. Yet there I was, late on a Saturday afternoon, sun shining bright on an empty 14,000 foot mountain. I clip into my pedals with a mixture of fear and amazement. I’ve pushed and ridden up the trail, so I *think* that I should be able to ride down most of it. I can’t wait to go find out just how much…
Originally I had volunteered to provide ‘glamping’ support for Eszter and Sara as they rode a Searle/Kokomo loop as an overnight. I was going to meet them Saturday night with camping gear and a big pizza from Mountain Pies. Sara had a different idea when we met her at Copper Mountain. They wanted to do it in a day.
My plan was still to head to Leadville, to fix some headlamps in the van and do some work at the coffee shop. I checked in on the seven (!) trackers Trackleaders had going, and everything seemed to be going well. I fixed a few things. I fixed a few headlamps on the van. Then, I looked around.
And what did I see? Nothing but blue sky. Warm sun my skin. In Leadville, in September. This was too rare a day to spend inside, on the computer. I weighed the costs against being an irresponsible business owner, but in the end I simply could not resist such a beautiful day. I could not resist the call of the mountains.
The call of one mountain, in particular, was supremely strong. It’s been near the top of my short list of 14ers that are 1) open to bikes and that 2) I haven’t already ridden. I’ve had a renewed interest in riding 14ers due to the enthusiasm of a small group of riders, independently seeking to ride/hike them all this summer. I am not seeking to ride them all, but all the talk has got me fired up to get back up and try a few.
Huron piqued my interest because there seemed to be some good trail involved, making me think it might be rideable. It was also very interesting because no one was certain whether it was open to bikes or not. According to my array of topo sources, the summit is just barely inside the Wilderness boundary. But, the trail, is not. Various maps listed it as a “hike/horse” trail only — but often those are just suggestions. I doubt anyone would suggest that Huron is a good ‘bike trail.’ I was able to google and find a photos of the above sign, which does not indicate that bikes are not allowed anywhere. But, maybe there’s a carsonite somewhere or some other indication that the trail was closed to bikes. I sure couldn’t find indication of anyone trying to ride it, but then who would think to try climbing a trail with 3000’+ of gain in just over 3 miles?
Well, I’m not the only one. But I sure was interested. I hit the road as quickly as I could, knowing that time was tight. The sun sets early in mid-September, and I needed to get back to Leadville at a reasonable hour in order to meet Eszter and Sara, since I had the camping gear and such. I ditched the car at the trailhead for Hope Pass, glad to be riding my bike on the potholed road instead of driving it. I parked there knowing I could ride a new stretch of CDT from Winfield on the way back. That would be my consolation if the trail was closed.
My heart was racing as I climbed the 4×4 road towards the trailhead. Cars were parked in random spots where people gave up on the road and decided to walk. Would the trail be open? Would it be closed? What do people think of seeing a mountain biker up here?
Zero indication of closure to bikes at the trailhead. I know it’s not Wilderness. We are good to go!
The first piece of trail is unrideable, perhaps barely even a trail, despite the use. OK, it’s open to bikes, but a more important question remains: is this actually a good idea? Will any of it be rideable, or will I push my bike both up, and down?
Only one way to find out. I set my standards low: as long as I rode 20%, up or down, it was going to be worth it. As long as I got up high on my feet and saw some alpine terrain, I was going to be happy.
To my surprise, I found myself riding, uphill. Wow. The switchbacks were impossible — super tight and stepped with rocks. But I could dig into the pedals and ride between.
Near treeline the rocks dissipated and I climbed and climbed, still clipped into the pedals. I couldn’t believe the nicely benched trail, reasonable grade and lack of obstacles. Am I really on a trail that leads to a 14er?
I emerge from the trees into a stunning alpine basin. Hikers are streaming down from the top, each with their own word of encouragement or funny comment to make when they see me. Everyone is enthusiastic. Some take photos. A couple mountain bikers have lightbulbs go off over their head. They’ve never considered that something like this could be attempted and could even be possible.
Open dirt trail, at 13,300′? Why yes, I will pedal up that, thankyouverymuch. Rideable switchback near the top? Are you kidding me? This is such a brilliant place to be, and even more brilliant to have a bike.
Of course, even after riding up even the most mellow of sections above 13k, I collapse on my handlebars, dizzy and unable to even see straight. Anaerobic efforts may or may not be advised in the thin air, but I could not resist, even though I knew continuing to hike-a-bike was easier, faster and more sustainable. I didn’t care. Once my eyes uncrossed, I’d clip back in and attempt to pedal the next stretch.
Deep, deep breaths of life.
About 400′ shy of the summit I pull out the phone to check in on the tracking world. All good. My topo app tells me I am sitting on the Wilderness boundary. Ahead the trail is nothing but talus, boulders. I didn’t think I will even be able to ride back down, and with the potential Wilderness ahead, I ditch the bike.
A curious goat stands at the summit. He’s growing fuzzy with the start of a winter coat. By the time I reach the top, he’s gone — magically out of sight. Where’d he go?
The summit. Barely a 14er, but I’ll take it.
The sun shines bright. The wind is calm. Barely a cloud in the sky at 4pm. It’s only me, the magic mountain goat, and a large raven circling overhead. Pure magic.
I don’t want to leave. I know how special this moment is, but also know how ill equipped I am to truly appreciate it. I try anyway. I thank the universe, at large.
Time to head down. I surmise maybe a couple stretches could be ridden, or attempted, by the right brave soul.
A look at the trail as it makes its way through the basin. The mountain goat appears near where I left my bike. But again, but the time I get there, he’s gone. I swear he’s magic. I can see everywhere, seemingly. How can he disappear with his bright white coat?
The descent is high focus. Slow, deliberate movements. Careful braking. Switchbacks are falling. My smile is growing. No skidding, no shredding, no ripping. This is backcountry riding at its finest.
I stop here, looking at the Three Apostles, near treeline, exhausted and absolutely buzzing.
Continuing through the trees it becomes, as expected, a ride between switchbacks type of affair. I manage a couple, and hoot with excitement. But most, I walk. Some of the chunk between switchbacks engages upper level “ride or walk” decision making. Often, in solo mode and with an empty mountain, I choose walk. Sometimes, “ride” is chosen. I get away with some calculated stairsteps and chunky madness that only makes me smile even harder.
I shoot out onto the 4×4 road to cheers of the hikers congregated at the trailhead, sharing beers. They are stoked that I made it. A nice tail wind shoves me down the road, passing several trucks picking their way down the road. Bikes = win, here.
Even on the graded road out of Winfield I am passing cars. I don’t know if its the tail wind, or the fact that I am buzzing with so much energy I can barely stand it, so I pedal hard. I’m so excited, and I’m also trying to hurry back before the sun sets.
Just an incredible day in the mountains.
(Side note: thanks to Jessica Martin, who is on the quest to ride all the 14ers, we now know that Huron is officially open to bikes, even to the summit. Many thanks to USFS out of Leadville and to Jessica, both for the 14er inspiration and for following up on this question after hearing me rave about it). Do note that I have an optimistic memory of things, and Huron is still *largely* a hike-a-bike.
photo by Eszter Horanyi
After a night camping above Leadville, we said goodbye to Sara and went to the coffee shop to catch up on work. The forecast was again for zero chance of rain, so we knew we wanted to get up high somewhere. I suggested the closest 14er, Mt. Sherman. Ez kindly agreed, thinking at first she would try to ride it, too. When we got a look at the trail she thought better of it, and switched to feet.
Where’s Waldo? Spot the dork pushing his bike up a scree field? — photo by Eszter Horanyi
It was probably a good call, as the approach from the Leadville side is mostly a hike, and full of boulders. I did manage a few highly rewarding pedal sessions, but they were short lived.
Once on the ridgeline, the wind was, as we had been warned, very strong. Ez hiked on well ahead of me, and as I stopped to talk to some hikers, some of them were getting knocked over. Some of them were getting knocked into me! I had to keep a careful hold of my bike. It was acting as a sail, wanting to fly off the mountain.
Ez came back down to see if I was still going to continue on. She said it was too windy to even walk at the next saddle. “You could crawl, I guess.” I didn’t like my chances of being able to ride down *any* of the mountain, but after a snack off the ridgeline, we decided to continue on.
photo by Eszter Horanyi
It was a good call. With caution it was no big deal, and it was calm at the top. The last tenth of a mile is rideable. How often do you get to ride ‘singletrack’ above 14,000 feet? Pinch me.
photo by Eszter Horanyi
Going back down required even more caution. A few times I had to grab the bike with both hands and crouch down, crossing saddles. But with a little patience, lulls would come. I’d drop the seatpost, get far behind the seat and slowly bounce my way down.
It was really surprising how much control you have. I think it was safer to ride than walk down a lot of it!
looking back up at Sherman’s ridge
Coming down from the saddle, the wind was still there, but it was constant, not gusting. So you can apply a constant correct for it, and riding was fine. I was brought back to the upper switchbacks of Huron, making very slow, deliberate movements, keeping tires in constant traction with the ground, and inching around switchbacks. Dream riding.
Ez made better time than me through the boulder field, but not once did I regret bringing the bike.
That makes nine 14ers by bike, depending on how you count them, for me. I would love to do Sherman again, from the more rideable Fairplay side — and with less wind on the ridge!
Energy was getting a little low, but Leadville has one of the best aspen-laced rides anywhere in the state — the Colorado Trail from Halfmoon to Twin Lakes.
It’s not quite prime time out there, with many aspens still green.
Ummm, but, yeah, that will do. Pockets out there are definitely what I’d call ‘prime time.’
The CT is a prime trail, too. This stretch was the first piece of CT I ever had the privilege to ride.
Ahh, fall in Colorado. It really is the best time of year. Whether you get up high and enjoy the bluebird days and lack of snow, or stay in the trees and bask in the colors of the season, get out there!
Our water was freezing camping up by Halfmoon, so we headed for the Banana Belt (Salida) the next day. We love this place. Hopefully the lovely fall weather will continue as our tour of Colorado friends and friendly trails continues.